I am building an altar for myself, which should, at a minimum, include a statue of Buddha and two other items – probably incense and a sutra. It isn’t essential; I have meditated for two years without one. I argue with myself about the altar, debating whether it is just another example of my religious flakiness and easy love for icons, or whether I am correct in my belief that it will help me to have a point of focus in meditation, a beacon to bring me back to the present when my mind has wandered. I get a little lost in the available choices of Buddhas, the rules about placement, the differences between Zen Buddhism and the Tibetan variety that has shaped my understanding so far.
My religious history is long and Byzantine, but maybe no more so than any other “seeker” of reasonable intelligence with the freedom to explore. I am the child of a Jewish mother and a father who lapsed from Catholicism into stark, unrelenting atheism. I grew up attending Passover Seders, the occasional Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah service, and many Jewish funerals. By the time I graduated from high school I could recite the mourner’s Kaddish, a ritual that more perfectly captures the dark, sweet sadness of love and loss than any other. With my Catholic grandmother I attended mass, loving the incense and robes, feeling the presence of something divine as the people around me said prayers I didn’t really understand, kneeling, rising and crossing themselves. My father, her son, readily and often stated that “organized religion is the root of all evil,” but he loved his mother, drove her to mass, and crossed himself before entering the pew at her funeral. He also knows more theology, Western and otherwise, than anyone I have ever met.
Growing up, my brother and I were free to make our own decisions about religion, although mostly we didn’t. In love with Ruthie Rome’s matzoh sandwiches, and having read the “All of a Kind Family” books 600 times, I would decide to be Jewish for a bit, asking for (and receiving) a Star of David necklace, and attending services with a Jewish friend. Enchanted by the Ash Wednesday smudge and the idea of the beautiful, flowing-haired Jesus I saw in my father’s art history books I would be Catholic, adding a cross to my collection of personal religious iconography. I didn’t go deep. My parents answered questions and encouraged us to think and explore, but were equally sane about my serial religious flakiness. It was in the same category as wanting to play ice hockey for one winter, and making up a form of “witchcraft” with my best friend in second grade.
What we were not free to make decisions about was morality. The question of “how do you know you are living right without religion?” came early, and was asked often. The answer is that we knew because we were raised by two people with a moral compass of the kind that is strong and true despite its origins in an improbable amalgam of beliefs. We learned no dogma, but we learned to put other people first, to serve without complaint or hesitation, to give with open hands and without strings, and to treat everyone with dignity and compassion. We both chose careers that involved public service, and helping people in various kinds of distress. We are both, I think, pretty decent human beings.
My brother’s ultimate religious election was not to be religious; he leans towards Judaism, and probably considers himself to be a cultural Jew. I always felt that there was value in spirituality, although it took me years to understand the difference between real, personal belief and a strong attraction to the “stuff” of a religious tradition, from literature to incense and symbols. In college I went through an Arch Atheist phase, followed by immersion into the Neumann Catholic community because I was madly in love with a Catholic. Neither felt right. After I was married and had a baby, I had a long and serious try at being a Protestant. Reading Catherine Marshall’s “Christy” in the Smoky Mountains, I really felt that I was called to be a Christian. I read theology, I learned hymns, and we joined an interdenominational Protestant church where I was baptized. I was an Elder, I was a Church Lady, and it fit my life well for quite a while. I was in a stage of life in which I was all about wholesomeness, scrap booking, room parenting and Setting a Good Example. It made me feel that I was doing the right thing for my family, and for myself.
Except that I stopped being able to believe any of it while I was still firmly ensconced as a Pillar of the Church. It was, for me, a spectacular personal failure. It was like a divorce, requiring me to admit at least to myself that I had led people astray, caught up in the rapture of what I had truly believed to be the beginning of a lifetime relationship. My husband is the head usher at that church, my son is a member of the Youth Group, and I am now an employee there, in charge of all food-related matters. I love the people, I love working in an institution focused on the spiritual and practical care and feeding of people in the community, and I still think that Jesus was a remarkable, inspirational person in the same category as Ghandi and Martin Luther King. I believe in his teachings, and I believe that Christians who use scripture as a guide for living compassionately are doing a phenomenal amount of good in this world. What I can’t believe are the stories, or that we are living on earth only until we get to a “better place.” I also struggle with the notion that we are meant to petition a higher power for faith, strength and guidance rather than relying on our own good sense and intrinsic values. My father is not a good man because he was a Catholic for the first 18 years of his life; he is a good man because he places a high value on doing good in the way that actually makes life better for his beneficiaries. His is a difficult example to forget or to write off as an anomaly.
For the past two years, I have been engaged in Buddhist practice I meditate, I spend my emotional capital in the present moment, and I make decisions based on compassion, and kindness. I struggle not to judge, not to dwell in the past or worry about the future, and to engage fully in the work at hand. It isn’t easy, but it feels right to me. I have noticed that during my mother’s current illness I have been far more comforted by being “present” with her, just being there and loving her, than I ever was by praying for her. She needs, I think, not the intercession of an unseen deity but the warm hand and beating heart of her real, live daughter. Others may differ, others absolutely do differ, but it’s right for me.
I am grateful for parents who allowed me to make my own choices, and who required that I be a decent human being without tying morality to the notion of divine observation or judgement. I am enriched and honored by every religious tradition I have explored or shared, from Judaism to Protestantism. I know that I am flaky, a seeker, a wanderer, not content to be “spiritual not religious,” but unable to believe in restrictive and improbable articles of faith. I’ll build an altar, probably just a small one, and sit beneath it for daily meditation. It will also, I think, help me to remember to be in the present moment, filled with the life that surrounds me. It may be pretentious, I may make another change some day, but I can’t know those things for sure. I only know that I need a Buddha and some wood.